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Shot-by-shot analyses of short passages from each film ground theory in concrete examples. Fabe includes original and well-informed discussions of Soviet montage, realism and expressionism in film form, classical and modern sound theory, the classic Hollywood film, Italian neorealism, the French New Wave, auteur theory, modernism and postmodernism in film, political cinema, feminist film theory and practice, and narrative experiments in new digital media. Encompassing the earliest silent films as well as those that exploit the most recent technological innovations, this book gives us the particulars of how film—arguably the most influential of contemporary forms of representation—constitutes our pleasure, influences our thoughts, and informs our daily reality.
F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh and Charles Chaplin's The Adventurer
EXPRESSIONISM AND FILM ART: F. W. MURNAU
At the same time that Eisenstein was experimenting with the capacity of editing or montage to give heightened emotional and political impact to his filmed narratives, the German filmmaker F.W. Murnau was concentrating on the potentials of the enframed image, the way specific photographic effects could add psychological expressiveness to the profilmic action. (As discussed in chapter 1, the term profilmic refers to the characters, settings, props and other aspects of the film's mise-en-scene before they are captured or enframed on celluloid.) Like many of his contemporaries working in the German film industry in the 1910s and 1920s, Murnau was influenced by Expressionism, the art movement that dominated German painting, literature, theatrical production and acting in the early twentieth century.
In The Haunted Screen, a book on German Expressionism in the cinema, Lotte Eisner draws upon the writings of Kasimir Edschmid todefine the essence of Expressionism in art:
Expressionism, Edschmid declared, is a reaction against the atom-splitting of Impressionism, which reflects the iridescent ambiguities, disquieting diversity, and ephemeral hues of nature. At the same time Expressionism sets itself against Naturalism with its mania for recording mere facts, and its paltry aim of photographing nature or daily life. The world is there for all to see; it would be absurd to reproduce it purely and simply as it is.
The Expressionist artists sought to abstract, distort, and hence transcend the look of everyday reality in order to represent the world-not objectively, but as the artist sees or experiences it. Given the historical context out of which German expressionism emerged-the horrible carnage of World War I, Germany's humiliating defeat, the social instability of the Weimar Republic, and spiraling inflation-it is not surprising that many German artists of this period imbued their vision of the world with feelings of angst, doom, and paranoia.
Cinema's capacity to mechanically reproduce images of the physical world-its ability to faithfully record "mere facts"-might seem to disqualify it as a medium for Expressionism. But German filmmakers nevertheless managed to incorporate the visual motifs and themes of Expressionism into their works. Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) accomplished this goal by photographing its action against a background of recognizably painted Expressionist sets that weirdly distort the natural world into forms that externalize the tortured inner world of the film's disturbed narrator. The artists who designed the sets for Caligari (Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann, and Walter Rohrig) were practicing expressionist artists and involved with the publication of the magazine Der Sturm, which was dedicated to disseminating Expressionist art.
In describing the sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, William Nestrick conveys the visual impact of the stylized sets by focusing on their radical transformation of the natural and man-made world (figures 12 and 13).
In the foreground and background of the shots of Caligari's tent, there are short trees or bushes; similar ones appear in the graveyard, around the bridge in the chase after Cesare, and about the path where Cesare finally collapses. They are recognizable representations of nature, but they have become unnatural. They violate principles of growth; on the hillside, they do not grow in the position in which trees usually grow. Most are denuded of leaves, and where they have leaves, the leaves look like spears. They threaten, they point, they seem to cut even as they themselves are cut ... Something has also happened to the architectural world. Buildings lean, bend, or rear themselves straight up (against the usual lines). Everywhere the right angle is rejected, the very angle that, in the simplest structures, makes for stability, balance, soundness. . . . Everyday artifacts, the world we make to shelter and comfort us, have been transformed into the unstable, unbalanced, unsound.
For Murnau, Caligari was both an inspiration and a dead end as a model for cinematic art. It was an inspiration because it abandoned the slavish imitation of a real, objectively perceived world to present a subjective vision. At the end of the film, which is narrated as an extended flashback, it is revealed that the distorted look of the world was a function of the narrator's mentally unbalanced mind. Caligari was a dead end because it projected the character's vision primarily through the film's mise-enscene, that is, its two-dimensional painted sets, a means borrowed from the theater. Hence, it did not fully exploit the expressive possibilities inherent in the cinematic medium.
EXPRESSIONIST TECHNIQUES IN THE LAST LAUGH
In his groundbreaking film The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann) (1924), Murnau achieved expressionistic distortions of the cinematic world not by photographing painted expressionist sets, but by capitalizing on the expressive capacities of the cinematic apparatus: extreme camera angles, special optical effects, and exuberant camera movements. The film vividly portrays the emotional deterioration of an aging doorman (Emil Jannings) at a luxury hotel in a big city when he is demoted from his proud station at the entrance to the hotel to the position of lavatory attendant in the basement below. His downfall comes when the manager of the hotel observes that he is no longer equal to the task of lifting a patron's heavy trunk. The change is tragic for the old man because his self-esteem derives from the impressive doorman's uniform he wears, which makes him the idol of his working-class neighbors. Without his uniform, he becomes the object of mockery and scorn. In The Last Laugh, the doorman moves through a convincingly real mise-en-scene (in contrast to the obviously artificial sets of Caligari). However, the film is richly emotionally expressive because of the way Murnau's photographic techniques (his use of close-ups, camera angles, moving cameras, superimpositions, distorting lenses-all the transformative effects of the enframed image) convey the doorman's inner states of mind. Murnau was one of the first filmmakers to exploit systematically the expressive possibilities of camera angle. He realized that, in general, if the subject is seen from a high angle (that is, the camera is shooting from above and thus down at the subject) the character will appear humbled or diminished. If, on the contrary, the subject is seen from below (that is, the camera is looking up at the subject), the character will appear imposing and confident. At the beginning of the film, before he is demoted from his position of doorman, Murnau films Jannings in close-ups and slightly from below, emphasizing his feelings of pride and self-importance. (See figure 14.) When he is obliged to unload a heavy trunk from a carriage, we see him looking up at the intimidating object. Murnau photographs him from a high angle (the camera shooting down at him) to emphasize his feelings of diminishment. (See figure 15.) Then we see the trunk, from his point of view. Shot from a low angle, it seems all the more burdensome. Finally the camera shoots down at the doorman to emphasize his struggle to lift it off the carriage.
In order to project the inner feelings of the doorman, Murnau often presents his world not as it is but as he sees it, distorted by his anxious mental state. On his way home, after he has lost his job as a doorman, a building sways precariously as if it is about to fall on him and crush him. In this mind's-eye image Murnau has found a concise visual means to express the inner devastation of a man who is crushed by the loss of his job and with it, his status in the world. So as not to lose his status with his neighbors, he steals his old uniform from the hotel and continues to wear it home from work. As he is about to leave for work in the morning wearing his stolen uniform, he encounters a woman on the landing outside his door. She gazes at him admiringly. But when we see her face from the doorman's point of view, it appears grotesquely stretched out and elongated, like a face in a distorting fun-house mirror. This distorted image conveys the doorman's fear of his neighbor. Vulnerable because of the loss of his job, he at last begins to penetrate the falseness of his neighbor's adulation to see the awful truth. Her adoring manner is based not on real affection but on her inflated conception of his importance. The grotesquely distorted image of the woman's fawning posture makes her adoration seem strangely menacing, as if hinting at the rage and contempt she will feel when she discovers he is a false idol. (See figure 16.)
Murnau, in collaboration with his cameraman Karl Freund and his screenwriter Carl Mayer, added a new dimension to the expressiveness of cinema by "unchaining" the camera. When The Last Laugh was made, most directors shot their actions with a static camera, employing camera movement only to make action scenes more exciting. In Griffith's last-minute rescues, for example, a moving camera was sometimes mounted on a truck which drove alongside or in front of the rescue vehicle (horses, trains, carriages, etc.) to lend kinetic dynamism to the shot. Eisenstein mounted a camera on tracks that extended the length of the Odessa Steps so that he could intensify the effect of the spectacle of the fleeing citizens by following their movement down the stairs with his camera.
In The Last Laugh, the camera is in motion from the beginning to the end of the film, often adding a subtle psychological dimension to the action. The film begins with a stunning moving camera shot: The camera descends in an elevator, and when the door to the lift opens, it heads out the door through a vast, luxurious hotel lobby, taking the spectator along for the ride. (This shot was obtained by strapping the camera on the chest of the cameraman, who then rode out into the lobby on a bicycle.) The camera then takes us through a revolving door to the front of the hotel where the doorman is on duty. Here the camera movement is more than just a virtuoso display of film technique. The dynamic movement through the hotel lobby emphasizes the spaciousness of the hotel and thereby magnifies our sense of its grandeur. When the camera movement finally ends on the doorman, we understand in a flash the grandiose self-importance he absorbs from his association with such a place. Robert Herlth, one of the set designers for The Last Laugh, writes: "we had not 'unchained' the camera for merely technical reasons. On the contrary, we had found a new and more exact way of isolating the image, and of intensifying dramatic incident."
A subtle example of the use of the moving camera to intensify a dramatic incident occurs when the doorman returns to work the day after losing his job but still wearing his old uniform. He has gotten drunk at the wedding party of his niece the night before and has apparently forgotten about his demotion to bathroom attendant. As he approaches the hotel, we see through his point of view an image of the doorman who has replaced him standing at his post in front of the hotel. The shot begins as a long shot of the new doorman and is slightly out of focus. The camera then begins to move in closer and closer to the new man until the lens is sharply focused on the face of the doorman's replacement. The slow camera movement and the gradual sharpening of the image perfectly convey the old doorman's reluctant but dawning recognition that he has been supplanted.
When another neighbor woman discovers the doorman at his lowly new post as bathroom attendant, the moment is given striking dramatic emphasis by a camera movement. We see a shot of the old man taken from outside the bathroom as he timidly opens the lavatory door and peers out to determine who has come to see him. At this point there is a POV shot of the neighbor woman (who has come to bring him lunch) looking back at him. As she opens her mouth to scream the camera lunges toward her until we see her face in an extreme close-up, framing only her eyes and nose. In contrast to the shot described above, in which the camera movement signifies a slow dawning of realization, here the lunge of the camera re-creates the feeling of an unexpected shock-both the woman's shock at seeing her idol so fallen and the ex-doorman's shock at being discovered.
Murnau also uses the moving camera to transfer viscerally to the viewer the doorman's drunken dizziness on the morning after the wedding party. As he sits down in a chair, he begins to start reeling through space. This effect was achieved by placing Jannings on a turntable device that swung back and forth, and then following his movement with the camera. Then we see a POV shot of the room spinning around. Here the cameraman Freund staggered about the room like a drunken man with the camera affixed to his chest. In both shots, the drunken man's vertigo is transferred onto the viewer.
Shortly thereafter, the ex-doorman falls asleep and dreams he still has his old job at the hotel. In his dream he effortlessly lifts an enormous trunk from the top of a hearselike coach and parades with it into the hotel lobby. To the enthusiastic applause of hotel staff and patrons, he repeatedly tosses the trunk into the air and catches it with one hand. The dream is obviously a wish-fulfilling denial of reality. The previous day he had desperately tried to convince the manager of the hotel that he still had the strength to be a doorman by lifting a heavy trunk in the manager's office. The trunk overpowered him, sealing his fate as a lavatory attendant. Camera movement plays a large part in drawing the audience into the experience of the old man's drunken dream. The camera swishes erratically over the faces of the hotel patrons applauding the old man's prowess with the trunk. At first this shot seems to be a subjective shot: that is, the admiring faces of the patrons are apparently seen from the point of view of the dreamer. But, suddenly, the camera pulls back to capture the dreamer objectively. Here the shift from a subjective to an objective perspective within one shot cinematically re-creates the experience common in dreams that one is simultaneously experiencing an event and watching oneself having the experience. The unpleasant tilting and jiggling of the camera, combined with the manic grandiosity of the content of the dream, has an irritating and disquieting effect, reminding the viewer that the doorman's glorious comeback is only a drunken fantasy.
The dream sequence described above is further enhanced by another special photographic effect, the use of multiple superimposed images to approximate the common dream phenomenon that Freud referred to as "condensation," the merging of two separate people or places into one composite image. Here Murnau superimposes images of the hotel dining room upon images of the doorman's tenement neighborhood. (See figure 17.) The fusion of these separate places into one space underlines the fact that the old man's prestige at work is vital to his well-being at home.
As the dream fades out, a momentary superimposition of dream images over a shot of the old man dozing visually conveys the semiconscious state between sleep and waking, when the aura of the dream persists even as the real world intrudes. These images abruptly disappear when the neighbor woman who subsequently discovers the doorman at work enters his room and shuts the window, suggesting that the sound of her action finally arouses him from sleep. This is one of many ways in which Murnau uses a visual device to bring sound to the silent medium of film. So adept was Murnau at conveying everything that needed to be conveyed through images-even sounds-that he was able to construct an utterly compelling ninety-minute story about the mental deterioration of an old man using only one written title.
Excerpted from closely watched films by Marilyn Fabe Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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1. The Beginnings of Film Narrative: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation
2. The Art of Montage: Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin
3. Expressionism and Realism in Film Form: F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh and Charles Chaplin’s The Adventurer
4. The Conversion to Sound and the Classical Hollywood Film: Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday
5. Expressive Realism: Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane
6. Italian Neorealism: Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief
7. Auteur Theory and the French New Wave: François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows
8. Hollywood Auteur: Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious
9. The European Art Film: Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2
10. Film and Postmodernism: Woody Allen’s Annie Hall
11. Political Cinema: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing
12. Feminism and Film Form: Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing
13. Epilogue: Digital Video and New Forms of Narrative in Mike Figgis’s Timecode